Chaplains to the Zeitgeist

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Pope Francis accepts an issue of La Civilta Cattolica from Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit-run magazine, during a Feb. 9 meeting with editors and staff. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout) See POPE-CIVILTA-CATTOLICA Feb. 9, 2017.

By Tom Piatak, Crisis Magazine, July 24, 2017

Tom Piatak

Recently, La Civilta Cattolica ran an article by that journal’s editor-in-chief, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, and by Marcelo Figueroa, the Argentinian Presbyterian minister chosen by Pope Francis to be the editor of the Argentinean edition of L’Osservatore Romano, which subsequently republished the article. Since articles in La Civilta Cattolica are vetted by the Vatican secretary of state, since L’Osservatore Romano is the Vatican’s own newspaper, and especially since both Spadaro and Figueroa are reputed to be close to Pope Francis, this article has garnered enormous attention in Catholic circles. Also noteworthy is the article’s thesis: a contrast between what it terms “Pope Francis’ geopolitics” and an “ecumenism of hate,” the authors’ term for the alliance between American Evangelical Protestants and Catholics, who have been drawn together “around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.”

The first point to note, of course, is that the “geopolitics” of a particular pope are not matters of faith and morals, and the faithful are free to disagree with them. The authors concede as much when they use their essay to attack, of all things, the Holy Roman Empire, the entity created when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in 800 and whose leader was prayed for by name in the Easter Exsultet for centuries. No Catholic need have any more deference to what Spadaro and Figueroa claim, accurately or not, to be Pope Francis’ political vision than Spadaro and Figueroa show to the political vision of the many popes who supported the ideal of Catholic monarchy for centuries, or indeed to the political vision of more recent pontiffs who had a warmer appreciation of political parties opposed to legalized abortion and homosexual marriage than Spadaro and Figueroa do.

Indeed, it is odd that Spadaro and Figueroa single out for criticism, of all the political movements in the world, one centered on agreement on Catholic teaching pertaining to matters of faith and morals. American Evangelicals were not behind the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation.” (CCC, Section 2273). American Evangelicals did not lobby to have St. John Paul II declare, in Evangelium Vitae, that “direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being…. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”

Nor were American Evangelicals the impetus behind Pope Francis’ declaration, in Amoris Laetitia, that “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Not only does the “ecumenical convergence” between Evangelicals and Catholics center on matters of clear Catholic teaching, but, for many Evangelicals, this “convergence” represents a conversion. When Roe v Wade was decided, many Evangelicals were indifferent to the prospect of legalized abortion or even somewhat supportive. It was the Catholic Church that was the center of opposition to legalized abortion in America in 1973. One would think that this conversion would be a cause for joy in Catholic publications, but for Spadaro and Figueroa it represents instead an “ecumenism of hate.”

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms to be made of both American Evangelicals and American pro-lifers. Many American Evangelicals subscribe to a theological anti-Catholicism, and they actively seek to convert Catholics to Protestantism. These efforts are particularly pronounced in Latin America, where the region’s historic shortage of priests has left many Catholics poorly catechized and easily persuaded by Protestant arguments they have never been taught to counter. And many Republicans have been quite cynical in their professed opposition to Roe v Wade, which remained the law of the land even after professed pro-life Republicans had appointed a majority on the Supreme Court. But, despite this political failure, the American pro-life movement has at least succeeded in keeping abortion alive as a moral issue. No matter how cynically many Republican politicians treat abortion, it is hard to say that the pro-abortion position has become dominant in America when a major political party claims to take the opposite position, its presidents profess to support the opposite position, and at least some of the justices on the Supreme Court continue to dissent from the decision that is the focus of the opposition.  Indeed, no one who pays any attention to American life can fail to notice that a substantial portion of the population does not accept the morality of abortion. The same cannot be said for many other Western countries whose politics Spadaro and Figueroa do not criticize.

Needless to say, these are not the criticisms Spadaro and Figueroa offer of the “ecumenism of hate.” Instead, they offer a potpourri of contemporary leftist tropes. They assert that those whose politics they disagree with are motivated by “hate.” They suggest that opposition to the legalization of abortion and gay marriage represents “the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state” and a “direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state,” the same positions advanced by secularists for decades. They attack American Evangelicals for being “composed mainly of whites from the deep American South,” sounding remarkably like Hillary Clinton bemoaning the “basket of deplorables.” They fret about “Islamophobia,” something that also worries The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel, but something that probably did not bother St. Pius V, who prayed for the victory of the Christian fleet he was instrumental in assembling at Lepanto, the date of which is marked on the Church’s calendar by the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

They worry about man-made global warming, which has become a matter of faith for the secular left but whose scientific basis is still being disputed in peer-reviewed scientific articles, including recent papers by Nikolov and Zeller and Wallace, D’Aleo, and Idso. They claim an affiliation with the “ecumenism of hate” for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and of course Donald Trump, but they do not offer any criticism at all of any leftist politician, political coalition, or political figure. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the main purpose of their essay is to bring about an alliance between the Church and the left, an alliance made difficult not just by Catholic teachings on abortion and marriage but by those Catholics whose votes are determined by those teachings.

They also come very close to suggesting that any opposition to non-Western immigration to the West is illegitimate, attacking members of the “ecumenism of hate” for being worried about “the migrants and the Muslims” and attacking moves to “build barrier-fences crowned with barbed wire.” The Church, however, has always taught that immigration is a prudential matter, with Pope Francis telling the Spanish newspaper El Pais that “each country has a right to control its borders, who enters and who leaves, and countries that are in danger—of terrorism or the like—have more right to control them.” Similarly, the statement issued by Benedict XVI on immigration in 2010 indicated that states have the right to regulate migration and defend their frontiers, and also recognized the importance of respecting a country’s laws and its national identity.

Spadaro and Figueroa completely ignore the weighty reasons supporting calls for immigration restriction in both America and Europe, preferring to wail about a “narrative of fear” instead. But America has admitted tens of millions of immigrants in recent decades, a massive influx that has depressed wages and caused great social disruption in many American communities. In Europe, an influx of Islamic immigrants has resulted in numerous instances of terrorism and mass murder. And future immigration into Europe has the potential to dramatically, and permanently, alter the continent that has been the center of the Church for centuries. At this writing, for example, many thousands of immigrants from the Mideast and Africa are hoping to be admitted into Italy. If everyone in the Mideast and Africa who wanted to come to Europe actually did, that number would be many millions. Given the very low birthrates in Italy and the very high birthrates in Africa and parts of the Mideast, it is easy to imagine unfettered immigration producing an Italy where Italians were outnumbered in their own country. At some point, such an Italy would be what Metternich quipped it was, merely a geographic expression.

It is not clear, though, that Spadaro and Figueroa would be bothered by such a radically transformed Europe. They write that “the Christian roots of a people are never to be understood in an ethnic way.” So much for Belloc’s “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.” So much for Ireland being “the Land of Saints and Scholars,” so much for France being “the Eldest Daughter of the Church,” so much for Croatia being the “Antemurale Christianitatis,” a title bestowed by Leo X. So much, too, for this passage from Norman Davies’ great history of Poland, “God’s Playground,” of which I have always been particularly fond: “The Church’s path, therefore, is strewn with ambiguities. Sometimes, no doubt, the Church has failed the Nation. Sometimes, no doubt, it has closed its eyes to social ills and to political injustices. Sometimes, no doubt, it has proved itself to be unworthy of the Faith. But of the central fact, that the Catholic Church embodies the most ancient and the most exalted ideals of traditional Polish life across the centuries, there can be no doubt whatsoever.”

Spadaro and Figueroa also claim that the “ecumenism of hate” employs a “Manichean language that divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil.” And this tendency does exist in American politics, as shown by George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address. But it is by no means confined to the Right, as shown by Hillary Clinton’s attack on “the basket of deplorables” and the continuing media assaults on Donald Trump and his supporters. Indeed, despite Spadaro and Figueroa’s invocation of Pope Francis’ “ecumenism … of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges,” they seem remarkably uninterested in building bridges to anyone on their right, or even of trying to understand them.

In contrast to the American evangelicals and Catholics who incur the scorn of the powers that be by refusing to accept gay marriage and abortion, this, then, is the vision presented by Spadaro and Figueroa:  a Christianity where the highest expression of Christian values is for Christian nations to cease to be Christian, both in terms of the laws they enact and the composition of their populations, with endless dialogue and bridge building for those on the left and scorn and condemnation for those on the right. In his great eulogy for the courageous Cardinal Meisner, Benedict XVI spoke of the need for pastors who resist the dictatorship of the Zeitgeist. The vision presented by Spadaro and Figueroa does not challenge the dictatorship of the Zeitgeist in any significant respect. Indeed, they seem all too willing to serve as chaplains to the spirit of the age.

Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pope Francis accepts an issue of La Civilta Cattolica from Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit-run magazine, in February, 2017. (Photo credit: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano.)


Tom Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He earned his JD from the University of Michigan Law School.